If we are talking about Jazz, then it’s not hard to find some great female singers; in many ways, they outdo the men. In terms of Jazz and Blues, the genre’s crossover significantly. And you will find the ladies can often, and often do, sing both.
- 1 – What a Diff’rence a Day Made
- 2 – Strange Fruit
- 3 – God Bless The Child
- 4 – Lullaby of Birdland
- 5 – Fever
- 6 – They Can’t Take That Away From Me
- 7 – I’ve Got You Under My Skin
- 8 – What A Wonderful World
- 9 – Send In The Clowns
- 10 – Crazy He Calls Me
- 11 – Take the ‘A’ Train
- 12 – Summertime
- Interested in Blues, Jazz, and Singing?
- Popular Jazz and Blues Songs for Female Vocalists – Final Thoughts
Brings out the Best
Playing Jazz as a musician tends to bring the best out of those that can handle it. It does the same with the vocals. It offers freedom and the room to improvise, and it does so like no other genre.
All you need is the voice. Obvious, really, but it does take a special kind of voice. And quite often, it is a voice that is good enough to cross genres and be excellent in all of them.
Great Singers, But You Need Something Else
Jazz would be non-existent without this element of the mix. The Writers. For Jazz, you need great songs. And over the years, some of the best songwriters have produced great tunes. And those tunes have been turned into Jazz masterpieces.
Right at the front of this has been the Ladies. It is a near-impossible task to compile a list of the best. There are too many. So all you can do is put down what you think, which will be different from everybody else.
So, let’s take a look at some of the most popular Jazz and Blues songs for female vocalists. But I have left the very best, in my opinion, until last.
1 – What a Diff’rence a Day Made
Also known as “What A Difference a Day Makes,” it was written by Mexican composer Maria Grever in the mid-30s. Covered by many people, the stand-out performances may well be the 1959 version by Dinah Washington and a later offering by Natalie Cole.
2 – Strange Fruit
This first visit to one of the “greats,” Billie Holiday, and for some, a controversial choice. This song was written by a white Jewish teacher named Abel Meeropol, who also happened to be a communist. Not the flavor of the month in some quarters in the late 30s before we have even got started.
Teaching in the Bronx, New York, he witnessed racism first hand. And, prompted by the random lynchings of African Americans, he wrote this poem. The poem became a song exposing the racism inherent in American culture. Billie Holiday puts in one of her great performances.
Let’s stay with Billie Holiday for a song she co-wrote with Arthur Herzog, Jr. They wrote it in 1939 and recorded it in 1941, and she finally released it as a single in 1942. This version was honored with a Grammy Award in 1976. It had some more honors coming and was included in a list as one of the Songs of the Century. Quite Right.
In later years, “Blood Sweat and Tears,” with ‘that’ David Clayton-Thomas voice. They did a great job of it on their Blood, Sweat and Tears album. This, though, is Billie Holiday’s 1956 version.
4 – Lullaby of Birdland
Our first visit to Ella Fitzgerald. This was one of the tracks from her Lullabies of Birdland album from the 1950s. With music by George Shearing, the song is about a New York Jazz Club called “Birdland” that opened in 1949. A classic Jazz song, recorded by many, but here expertly sung by one of the greats.
5 – Fever
Performed and recorded by a great number of singers, it was written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell. It was first released by Little Willie John in 1956 as a track from his album Fever. But it was the Peggy Lee version of 1958 that was probably the best recording despite the competition from others.
She gave it a mixture of Blues and Jazz that created an iconic recording. For her version, she rewrote many of the lyrics, though was never given credit. An excellent example of a great singer giving a great Jazz performance.
6 – They Can’t Take That Away From Me
Written by the Gershwins Brothers, George and Ira, in 1937, it first appeared in a film when it was sung by Fred Astaire. Billie Holiday also recorded it in the same year, and it has since become a jazz classic.
Some ‘ne’er do well’ called Sinatra, or something had a go with it. And in 1956, Ella Fitgerald added her class to what is a great song.
Cole Porter’s great 1936 song, another that became a Jazz classic. It became a little more than that when that Sinatra bloke got hold of it. He didn’t do a bad job, all things considered. And neither did the Four Seasons in a different way who had a hit with it in 1966.
But I am going to go with the version by Dinah Washington. This was recorded live in LA in 1954 and also features the great Cliff Brown on Trumpet.
Sometimes she sits in the shadow of Ella and some of the others, but what a voice. She made an impact with this song with her sultry tones and distinctive style. Great song, great singer. Take a listen to one of the most popular jazz and blues songs for female vocalists.
How you typify and determine what Jazz is, is at times, a personal thing. This was recorded and released in 1967 by Louis Armstrong. Was it Jazz or a pop song? It went to number one in the UK but flopped in the US because Larry Newton, boss of ABC, didn’t like it. Therefore, he refused to promote it. You meet them sometimes, don’t you? Thankfully, not often.
Of course, most people remember it from “Good Morning Vietnam.” That was not an anti-war movie, according to the Director, but an anti-stupidity movie. Same thing, really. But this song was a great and inspired addition. I have chosen a more up-to-date version performed by one of the best female jazz singers, Etta Jones, released in 1997.
In some ways, another who sometimes slipped under the radar was Sarah Vaughan. She was the first “real” Jazz singer I ever heard, courtesy of my piano-playing sister. We had a lot of old scratchy 78s. In her time, she worked with both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The song I have chosen features her with Count Basie.
Great voice, of course. Diva, definitely. Tragic life, sadly. She had too many great recordings to make it easy to choose one. But this is special, and in some ways, the subject matter is appropriate.
It comes from the musical “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim. The character singing it reflects on the disappointments and the ironies of her own life. Quite appropriate that such a great singer with such a tragic life, like Sarah Vaughan, should cover this. Take a listen to the lady nicknamed the ‘Divine One’ for her almost operatic tones and range.
10 – Crazy He Calls Me
Back one more time to Billie Holiday for another Jazz classic. This was released in 1949 and is a song that shows just how good her middle range could be. She takes this song with its almost Bluesy feel and makes it her own in her inimitable way.
11 – Take the ‘A’ Train
Another very quick return to the great Ella Fitzgerald. This one swings along a bit with Ella doing her ‘Scat’ thing. There is something special about this voice when she is in the mood, and here she definitely is. A great song for female Jazz singers.
So, eleven great songs, performed by some of the best we’ve ever had. I’ve missed out on quite a few. But for me, there was only one place to finish this list of great Jazz/Blues songs, and of course, their singers.
12 – Summertime
If I had to choose one song from all, and I mean all, that have ever been written, this would certainly be in my top 3. And if I had to pick anyone to sing it, that would have to be Cleo Laine.
It would have taken a brave person to cast African-Americans for a show opening in 1930s America. But this is what they did with Porgy and Bess. And boy, did they get it right. Summertime was the song of the show.
It was sung in the show by a black slave breastfeeding a white child. And this while her children have been taken from her and sent away. She sings to the child; it will be alright because “your daddy’s rich.” And Cleo’s performance? Just stunning. I saw her do it live one night. I have never forgotten it, and it still sends chills up my spine.
Interested in Blues, Jazz, and Singing?
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Popular Jazz and Blues Songs for Female Vocalists – Final Thoughts
I could have gone on, but twelve great jazz/blues songs seem like enough. Music doesn’t need labels when it is this good. Let’s just say twelve great songs with great singers.
Until next time, let the music play.